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The Laws of Thought

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

14. The Phenomenological Approach


1.     Appearance, Reality and Illusion


Phenomenology results from a realization that the building blocks of knowledge are appearances. This realization is obtained through a dialectic, comprising thesis, antithesis and synthesis, as follows.

  1. At first, one naturally regards everything one comes across in experience or thought as ‘real’ (this is the ‘naïve realist’ stance).
  2. Then, faced with evident contradictions and gaps in one’s knowledge, one logically realizes that some things that seemed real at first must or at least may eventually be considered unreal – i.e. ‘illusory’ (this constitutes a cognitive crisis).
  3. Finally, one realizes that, whether something is real or illusory (and ultimately remains so or turns out to be the opposite), at least it can immediately (unconditionally and absolutely) be acknowledged as ‘apparent’ (this is the ‘phenomenological’ stance, which resolves the crisis).

Knowledge of reality can then be inductively built up from knowledge of appearances, thanks to the following principle (d): One may credibly assume something that appears to be real is indeed real, until and unless it is proved illusory or at least put in doubt for some specific reason. This may be characterized ‘subtle realism’, and proceeds from the realization that the mere fact of appearance is the source of all credibility.

Thus, phenomenology follows the natural flow of knowledge, which is to initially accept individual appearances as real, while remaining ready to reclassify them as illusory if they give rise to specific logical problems that can only be solved in that specific way. The concept of ‘appearance’ is therefore not strictly primary, but a transitional term for use in problematic cases. Since it refers to the common ground between ‘reality’ and ‘illusion’, it is deductively primary. But since the latter are in practice attained before it, it is inductively secondary.

The concepts appearance, reality and illusion are to begin with concerned with experiences; and only thereafter, by analogy, they are applied to abstractions, i.e. conceptual products of experience arrived at through rational considerations, such as comparison and contrast (i.e. affirmation or negation, and measurement).

The term ‘fact’ is usually intended to refer to purely experiential data, i.e. the raw material of knowledge, in which case the opposite term ‘fiction’ refers to other items of knowledge, i.e. those tainted by interpretative hypotheses. (But note that in practice of course we do not always abide by such strict definitions, and may use the terms more broadly or narrowly.)

The concepts of truth, falsehood and uncertainty correspond in scope to those of reality, illusion and appearance. The latter triad is applied to the contents of propositions, while the former concerns the propositions as such. For example, considering “dogs bark”, the fact of dogs barking is ‘a reality’, while the proposition that dogs bark is ‘true’; similarly in other cases.

Once we understand all such concepts as signifying different epistemological and ontological statuses, it becomes clear why they need to be distinguished from each other. They are all used as logical instruments – to clarify and order discourse, and avoid confusions and antinomies.

Note well that phenomenology is not a skeptical philosophy that denies reality to all appearances and claims them all to be illusions. Such a posture (which too many philosophers have stupidly fallen into) is logically self-contradictory, since it claims itself true while rejecting all possibility of truth. The concept of illusion has no meaning if that of reality is denied; some credulity is needed for incredulity. Doubt is always based on some apparent contradiction or gap in knowledge; i.e. it is itself also an item within knowledge.


2.     Existence and Non-existence


What is the relation between the concepts of existence and non-existence (or being and non-being), and those just elucidated of appearance, reality and illusion, one might ask?

At first, the term existence may be compared to that of reality, or more broadly to that of appearance (to admit the fact that illusions occur, even if their status is not equal to that of realities). However, upon reflection, an important divergence occurs when factors like time and place are taken into consideration.

We need to be able to verbally express changes in experience over time, space and other circumstances. An appearance, be it real or illusory, ‘exists’ at the time and place of its appearance – but may ‘not exist’ at some earlier or later time, or in another place. The ‘existence’ of appearances is transient, local, conditional and relative.

What appears today may cease to appear tomorrow, although it might (or might not) continue to appear less manifestly, through someone’s memory of it or through the appearance of exclusive effects of it. Something may appear here within my field of vision, but be absent elsewhere. You may see this in some circumstances, and then notice its absence in others.

We thus need to distinguish different ways of appearance. With reference to time: in actuality, or through memory or anticipation; or with reference to spatial positioning. Or again, with regard to modality: in actuality, only through potentiality (i.e. in some circumstances other than those currently operative), or through necessity (i.e. in all circumstances).

Time and place also incite a distinction between ‘existence’ and ‘reality’ (or ‘truth’), in that when something ceases to exist at a given time and place, the reality of its having existed at the previous time and place is not affected.

Furthermore, appearances are apparent to someone, somewhere – they are contents of consciousness, objects of cognition. The concept of existence is differentiated also with reference to this, by conceiving that what may be apparent to one Subject, may not be so to another. Moreover, we wish to eventually acknowledge that something may conceivably exist even without being experienced by anyone (though of course, in defining such a category, we must admit for consistency’s sake that we are thereby at least vaguely and indirectly conceptually cognizing the object concerned).

We thus come to the realization that the concept of appearance is a relatively subjective one, involving two distinct factors: an object of some kind with specific manifestations, on the one hand, and an awareness by someone of that object at a given time and place. The concept of existence is intended to separate out the objective factor from the factor of consciousness implicit in the concept of appearance.

‘Existence’ is thus needed to objectify ‘appearance’, and allow us to conceive of the object apart from any subject’s consciousness of it. We need to be able to conceive of the objects appearing to us as sometimes ‘continuing on’ even when we cease to be aware of them. Furthermore, we need to be able to consider objects that we have not yet personally experienced, and even may never experience. In this manner, we can project our minds beyond mere appearance, and through conception and adduction hope to grasp existence in a larger sense.

The concept of existence and its negation are thus additional instruments of logic, facilitating rational discourse, without which we would not be able to mentally express many distinctions. Consequently, saying ‘existence exists’ and ‘non-existence does not exist’ is not mere tautology, but an acknowledgement that the words we use have certain useful intentions. These statements constitute one more way for us to express the laws of thought. Existence cannot be denied and non-existence cannot be affirmed.

We do not make the distinction between ‘existents’ and non-existents’ by mentally lining up two kinds of things, like apples and things other than apples. The epistemological scenario applicable to most of our concepts is not applicable to such basic ones, which are of a more broadly pragmatic nature. Discernment rather than distinction is involved.

Whereas the concept ‘existence’ has some ultimate experiential content, ‘non-existence’ has none – because factual denial is not based on the same mental process as affirmation. We never experience non-existence – we only (in certain cases) fail to experience existence. The concept of existence is not built up by contrast to that of non-existence, since (by definition) the former relates to ‘all things’ and the latter to ‘nothing’, and nothing is not some kind of something. There is no time, place or circumstance containing nothingness. The word ‘non-existence’ is just a dumping place for all the words and sentences that have been identified as meaningless or false.

Terms like ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’ are not ordinary subjects, copulae or predicates; they are too broad and basic to be treated like any other terms. Those who construct a theory of knowledge, or an ontology, which concludes that ‘existence does not exist’ or that ‘non-existence exists’ have not understood the logic of adduction. When there is a conflict between theory and observed facts, it is the theory (or the ‘reasoning’ that led up to it) that is put in doubt and is to be dismissed, not the facts.


Drawn from Ruminations (2005), Chapter 2 (section 17).



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