Real Appearance


Real Appearance


Philosophers are apt to speak of appearance and reality as if the two are opposed. But this is too simple: appearances are necessarily real and realities necessarily appear. The dichotomy no doubt has its origin in cases of perceptual illusion—the stick in water appears bent but in reality is not.  Here is the appearance and there is the reality, the two running on separate tracks. Then the philosopher converts this distinction into a general thesis about the world, dividing it into Reality and Appearance (capitalized). Reality may be said to be the totality of appearances (idealism) or to transcend appearances (realism). The concepts are clear, and clearly distinct, now we just have to make use of them to formulate grand theories. But let’s look at them more closely, in particular, their alleged mutual exclusiveness. Is this really a good way to carve things up? How exactly are the two concepts related?

First, appearances are real: when it seems to you that the stick is bent it really does appear bent. The stick is one thing–an element of reality–and the appearance of it is another–a distinct element of reality. Both are real, and equally real, but they are not the same. We might say that the appearance is not part of the reality of the stick, but neither is the stick part of the reality of the appearance (it could exist without the stick). The appearance is part of the real world of appearances: impressions, presentations, ways things seem.[1] We might say it is part of the world of psychology—the way things strike minds. So why are we opposing appearance and reality when appearances are constituents of reality? They are just not parts of that reality—the part that the stick exists in. They are not parts of physical reality, as we like to say, though they are parts of reality as a whole. Moreover, they are parts of objective reality: they objectively exist just like other aspects of the mind (the subjective is also objective in this sense). They are objective facts: it really did objectively seem to me that the stick was bent. Appearances exist at certain times and places, have causal powers, and can be measured—they are not phantasms or fictions.  If we say, for example, that colors belong to the realm of appearance, we in no way assert that they are not objectively real—they are just not included in the part of reality that (so-called) physical objects occupy. Being assigned to the realm of appearance is not a form of ontological demotion.

But now things are about to get murkier: do appearances have a reality that transcends their appearance, and do realities necessarily appear? I think the answer to both questions is yes, though the matter is hardly straightforward. Taking the second question first, is it true that every real thing has an appearance? Not a perceptual appearance, to be sure, because of numbers, moral values, thoughts, and appearances themselves. We don’t have visual impressions of these things. Still, they are presented to our minds in a certain way: we have (as Frege would say) modes of presentation of them. They don’t appear to us naked, just as they are in themselves, with no infusion from our minds; they appear to us in ways conditioned by our modes of sensibility and intelligibility. We grasp numbers, say, in the way human beings grasp them—as finite fallible embodied creatures. Not all conceivable beings grasp them this way: some may survey them far more extensively and intuitively. Animals may grasp numbers in a way different from the human way—more primitively, we suppose—and superior intelligences may grasp them differently from us (and we vary among ourselves according to our mathematical prowess).[2] Appearances are not always perceptual, yet they exist nonetheless. Similarly, unobservable entities like atoms have an appearance—how we represent them in thought. Maybe we use images to do so or maybe discursive symbols, but we grasp them somehow—under some mode of presentation. Conceivably, other beings might grasp them differently, according to their cognitive structure.[3] But what about unknown realities—do they have appearances? What about reality before minds came to exist? Here I think we can say that such unknown objects have conditional appearances: there is a way they would appear to minds of such and such a type. This is a determinate fact about them: every reality has a way (a set of ways) of possibly appearing to cognitive beings. The reality constrains the appearance, without exhausting it, and the appearance belongs to the reality as an objective fact. There is a fact of the matter about how unknown particles would appear to the human mind—or numbers not yet contemplated. There is no such thing as appearance-free reality: real things necessarily have appearances built into them (sometimes conditionally). The same is not true of fictions: they don’t always have a determinate way they would appear, because they don’t always have a determinate nature. How would Sherlock Holmes appear? But things with a determinate objective nature thereby have a determinate mode of appearance, which is relative to the being appeared to. Appearance is thus woven into reality not imposed on it arbitrarily from outside. There is no appearance-neutral reality.

As to the first question, I believe that appearances always transcend their appearance. There is always more to them than there seems. This is because they are themselves realities. For example, the stick seeming bent to me at time t is an experience with a nature—a visual experience occurring at a certain time with certain causes and effects. Not everything about it is apparent to my mind. Maybe we can say that it appeared to me a certain way—the appearance did—but it wasn’t exhausted by this second-order appearance. It is not easy to argue for this view, but I think it has intuitive plausibility: why should the part of reality consisting of appearances be different from the rest of reality? Appearances are real too, so they should have a nature that transcends their appearance—this is part of realism about appearances. Appearances are natural occurrences or states with a basis in the brain, a history, and a science proper to them: why should they lack a nature that goes beyond how they naively seem? An idealist about appearances would suppose that they are nothing but how they appear, but a realist will insist that nothing real reduces to its mode of presentation—even modes of presentation themselves. Senses, to use Frege’s terminology, have a nature of their own not exhausted by how they strike the mind (and the same is true of these events of striking the mind). In other words, real things are never just a matter of how they strike a mind, which includes appearances.

Let me put it this way: objective reality always has subjective appearance built into it, and subjective appearance always has objective reality built into it. The two are intertwined not separate orders of being. This is not to say that appearance and reality collapse into each other, or that the concepts are not genuinely distinct. The matter is subtler than that—harder to comprehend. Let’s look at logical form. The concept of appearance is a three-place relation: x is an appearance of y to z. An appearance is always an appearance of something (cf. Brentano)—in the simplest case a perceptual appearance is an appearance of a physical object (or a merely intentional object in the case of hallucination). But it is also true that every appearance is an appearance to someone—a sentient being at a minimum. The word “appear” always goes along grammatically with the prepositions “of” and “to” (or some equivalent): that is its logical grammar, as Wittgenstein would say. But no such thing is true of the word “real”: when something is real it is not real of something or to someone. Realities are not relations between themselves and something else that they are of, and they are not inherently relations to conscious beings. So the two concepts are vastly different; they correspond to quite different aspects of the world. Yet they are necessarily joined at the hip, since everything real has an appearance (even if only conditionally) and every appearance has an underlying reality (if we are appearance realists). You can’t be an idealist who denies realities beyond appearances, and you can’t be a realist who denies the reality of appearances. For appearances are realities with an objective nature and realities are things that necessarily appear in a certain way. Reality is woven into appearance and appearance is woven into reality. To put it simply, appearances are real and realities appear. There is no possible conception of the world that denies these truths: we cannot conceive of reality without a determinate mode of appearance, and we cannot conceive of appearances without an underlying reality. There is no appearance-independent conception of reality, and there is no reality-independent conception of appearance. This basic truth stems from the recognition that appearances are not opposed to reality but part of it, and reality is not something that floats free of appearance like the Invisible Man (a Kantian point). We can thus understand why some philosophers maintain that reality is appearance and others maintain that appearances are somehow illusory or fictitious (there are really only brain states). But reality is always more than appearance, while never departing altogether from appearance. Idealism (in one form) is not true, necessarily so, but a realism that seeks to detach the world from all appearances is likewise doomed. The phenomenal has its noumenal aspect and the noumenal has its own (counterfactual) phenomenal aspect. Reality and appearance are indissolubly connected, though logically and metaphysically quite distinct. We would do well to reform our metaphysical language to speak of appearance-reality and reality-appearance: unities not dualities. Everything that exists is a hybrid of the two, or better a fusion.[4]


[1] If the world is everything that is the case, then appearances are part of what is the case—one type of fact among others. It is not that appearances lie outside the world; indeed, some philosophers have thought that appearances are the only thing that exists in the world. In any case, they are of the world—part of the totality of facts.

[2] We can thus say that every reality corresponds to many possible appearances, because appearance is a relation between an objective entity and a subjective viewpoint (this may be entirely intellectual). We might even agree that every finite reality has infinitely many possible appearances. Still the reality constrains the appearance, as reference constrains sense.

[3] This has a bearing on what is called the “absolute conception”, the way we grasp the subject matter of physics. This should not be taken to be completely appearance-neutral, since it depends on our specific cognitive and linguistic make-up, though not perhaps on our sensory make-up. Particles have their creature-relative modes of presentation.

[4] This is one of those cases in which trying to state the metaphysical truth taxes our language, no doubt because it was forged in conditions of metaphysical confusion.

5 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    ‘Appearances are real and reality appears.‘ Very well said. We are caught between. This reminds me of your ‘who is that in the mirror’ reflection (discovery?) from a previous post.

  2. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    “I believe that appearances always transcend their appearance. There is always more to them than there seems. This is because they are themselves realities. For example, the stick seeming bent to me at time t is an experience with a nature—a visual experience occurring at a certain time with certain causes and effects. Not everything about it is apparent to my mind. Maybe we can say that it appeared to me a certain way—the appearance did—but it wasn’t exhausted by this second-order appearance.” – C. McGinn

    Husserl writes (in his Logical Investigations, Vol. 2) that “the appearances themselves don’t appear, they are experienced.”
    Don’t you agree that there is no additional and distinctive phenomenology of introspection, i.e. that there are no introspective second-order appearances of appearances or experiences? If this is true—which I think it is—, how can introspection fail to have access to and to discover the real essence or true nature of appearances or experiences. If there is no second-order phenomenology of introspection constituting an opaque veil of introspection, there cannot be any introspective illusions. And how can there be a hidden, noumenal reality of appearances/experiences without introspective illusions?
    If the introspective mode of presentation of appearances/experiences is direct in the sense of not involving any representations of them that can be misrepresentations, the appearance-reality distinction cannot coherently be applied to subjective appearances/experiences themselves.

  3. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    I experience my thoughts, pains, and moods, but is experiencing an experience the same as being appeared to by it? I doubt it is. When I undergo a perceptual experience, I am appeared to by its intentional object rather than by its experiential content (the sense-qualia involved). When I see a tree, what appears to me is the tree rather than my seeing of it.

    Are “mode of presentation” and “mode of appearance” synonyms? Anyway, there is a relevant distinction between a (mode of) /presentation/ and a (mode of) /representation/; and I think objects of perception are /presented to/ and appear to subjects, whereas objects of cogitation, imagination, or recollection are /represented to/ subjects without being presented or appearing to them.

    When I think of a tree (I don’t see), neither the tree nor my thinking of it appears to me. I just experience my thinking of the tree that represents the tree. The tree itself is presented and appears to me only if I perceive it; so I disagree with your statement that “not all modes of presentation are perceptual.” As opposed to perception, thought, imagination, and recollection don’t “give” us their objects themselves but only mental representations (ideas, images, Vorstellungen) of them.

    (By the way, necessarily, if x is presented or appears to y, then x exists; but if x is represented to y, then x needn’t exist.)

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I don’t agree with most of that. Modes of presentation in Frege’s sense are not always perceptual: they are “aspects” in his terminology. The idea is that the same thing can be perceived or conceived in different ways (under different aspects). An experience can be grasped subjectively or objectively in Nagel’s sense (as with “objective phenomenology”). I see no objection to using “appearance” in an extended technical sense to apply to any mode of presentation.


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