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The Laws of Thought

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

8. Existence, Appearance, Reality and Illusion


1.     Appearance and Other Large Concepts


By ‘appearance’ is meant, first of all, anything and everything – but upon reflection, more specifically anything which ‘comes to mind,’ by whatever means. This is not a definition, but an indication. The term appearance is too fundamental to be definable without circularity, we can only ‘point to’ its instances; indeed, whatever we can point to, in any sense of the term (physically with a finger, mentally by projecting a boundary, verbally by defining or intentionally by focusing on), is an appearance. Thus, ‘appearance’ refers to any object – of consciousness (but of course, ‘consciousness’ is itself too basic to be definable – see further on).

The concept of appearance differs from that of ‘existence’ as of when we assume that things exist before or after we are aware of them, and therefore by extrapolation that things exist that we are never aware of. This assumption that there are things (existents) we are not conscious of, serves to explain or integrate, among others, the appearance that things disappear and reappear (signifying continuity of existence in the interim – granting reliability to memory). It also expresses our belief that other selves beside oneself exist (as opposed to solipsism), each of which is aware of (and reports) some things one is not aware of, or unaware of some things one is aware of.

Figure 8.1        Existence, Appearance, Reality and Illusion.


Thus, although the two concepts may initially coincide, at some stage we come to regard appearance as a subcategory of existence, implying that whereas all appearances exist, some existents are not apparent. Non-apparent existents are, note well, hypothetical; i.e. ‘nonappearance’ is a word whose content is by definition unknown but not in principle unknowable. Non-existents do not, of course, exist; which means that the word ‘nonexistence’ has no ideational content, but is just a verbal construct by negation (an artifice we use as a sort of garbage can for incoherent hypothetical concepts or propositions).

We may here also mention, in passing, the subsidiary concept of actuality, or ‘present existence,’ which arises in the specific context of natural modality, to distinguish between potentiality with present existence and that without present existence.

The concept of appearance likewise to begin with coincides with that of ‘reality.’ But as of when we come to the conclusion, as a way to explain certain illogical appearances (like contradictions between experiences or between our beliefs/predictions and experiences) that some things are illusory, i.e. that consciousness errs occasionally, we posit that reality is a mere subcategory of appearance, and therefore of existence. The complementary subcategory of appearance, unreality or ‘illusion,’ also has the status of existence, note well. There are also appearances that we are at a given time unable to classify as reality or illusion; these are temporarily problematic.

One cannot claim that all appearance is illusion, without thereby contradicting oneself, since such a claim is itself an appearance that is being assumed a reality; it is therefore logically self-evident that some appearances are realities. The deductive relation between these concepts is therefore this: appearance is the common ground of reality and illusion, i.e. implied by both but not implying either. Reality and illusion are mutually contradictory concepts – both cannot be true/applicable, but one of them must ultimately be so. Thus, every object of awareness can be claimed as appearance offhand, without prejudicing the issue as to whether it is real or illusory. However, appearance and reality are also inductively related, as follows: every appearance may be assumed a reality unless (or until, if ever) it is judged (for logical reasons, as mentioned) to be an illusion. Just as the concepts of appearance and reality are initially (at an uncritical, naïve level) the same, so in every instance they remain equal except where illusion is demonstrated (or at least, doubt is instilled).

Note well that the above differentiations between existence, appearance and reality are not immediately obvious, neither in the development of an individual’s knowledge nor in the history of human thought. They are not a priori givens, or self-evident deductive certainties or an axiomatic absolute truths, but conclusions of rational (conceptual and logical) process. That is, they express a set of hypotheses which inductively, over time, have been found to satisfactorily integrate and explain a mass of appearances, i.e. to fit-in in a comprehensive and convincing world-view. Thus, to mention these differentiations ab initio, as we do here, may be misleading – they are only at this stage vague notions and assumptions, which are in the long run further defined and found confirmed by the absence of any equally credible hypotheses, any other conceptual constructs which prove as coherent and consistent both internally (as theoretical postulates) and externally (in relation to cumulative appearance, and especially experience). Their being hypotheses does not per se invalidate them, for the claim that all hypothesizing is invalid is itself equally hypothetical and so self-invalidating.

We shall again anticipate, with reference to what we mean by ‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness’ or ‘cognition.’ This may be defined as the relation between Subject and Object, whatever activities or states either may undergo within such relation[1]. The fundamental given is appearances – but we have no reason to believe that all appearances appear to each other, i.e. we seem to have a privilege among existents in being aware of other existents. We suppose thereby that the fact of ‘appearance’ is different from mere ‘existence,’ and occurs only relative to a conscious Subject.

The ‘Subject’ of this relation is identified with the intuited self (me, in my case – you, in yours), but such intuition has at first only the status of an appearance; it is initially a vague and uncertain notion rather than a fully developed and justified concept. The other pole in the putative relation of consciousness, the ‘Object,’ refers to the appearances involved (which are here given another name to stress their being taken into consideration specifically within the said relation).

To posit such a relation does not tell us anything much about it, admittedly – we merely have a word for it, referring to something supposedly too primary in knowledge to be definable. But the trilogy Subject-consciousness-Object is posited by us in a bid to understand and explain how and why appearance differs from existence. The meaning and validity of this hypothesis, including the new ideas of a Subject and consciousness, are not immediate, but established with reference to the cumulative thrust of experience and reasoning, including consideration of conflicting hypotheses. It is only after the latter are found less coherent and consistent than the former that we inductively conclude that our hypothesis is convincing and reliable.

Let me emphasize preemptively that to postulate that appearance signifies existence within awareness is not meant to imply that the existence of appearances is caused by awareness, but only to differentiate putative non-apparent existents from appearances. The relation of consciousness is postulated as per se neutral, affecting neither the Subject nor the Object. Existents remain essentially unchanged by it when they enter the field of awareness and are labeled more specifically as ‘appearances.’ To presume the contents of consciousness ‘subjective’ (in the pejorative sense of the term), implying a dependence (creation or modification) of the Object by the Subject, is a very different hypothesis; one, indeed, hard to uphold, since if we apply it to itself we put it in doubt. Moreover, if such subjectivist hypothesis were claimed true, there would be no need for it, for ‘appearance’ and ‘existence’ would be coextensive. So our hypothesis of consciousness is inherently rather ‘objectivist.’ Evidently, there is lots of reasoning behind such concepts and postulates; they are not arbitrary assertions (as some philosophers contend). Also, such reflections and clarifications are not and need not be consciously made before at all embarking on the enterprise of knowledge; they flower gradually in response to specific doubts and questions.


2.     Material, Mental, Intuitive, Abstract


Now, of all appearances, those labeled ‘concrete’ are the most manifest, the most evidently present to our consciousness. They are also called ‘phenomena,’ to stress that we should not immediately take for granted their apparent reality, having over time become aware that some are best judged illusory after due consideration. Concrete objects seem more directly or immediately knowable than others – apart from the issue of reality or illusion just mentioned – so we assign them a special kind of consciousness or cognition called perception and label them ‘percepts.’

Among concretes, some are more ostentatious and permanent than others and seem relatively far and independent of us – these we refer to as ‘material’ or ‘physical.’ The remainder we label ‘mental’ or ‘imaginary,’ distinguishing them by their relative poverty, transience, intimacy and dependence on us. Most of our common ‘world’ (cumulative appearance) is composed of material phenomena, and all or most mental phenomena seem to be derivative replicas of them or of parts of them. Among material phenomena, some are considered ‘in our own body’ or ‘physiological,’ and the others ‘outside our body,’ our ‘body’ being distinguished by its relative proximity (to the observer) and the peculiar events occurring in it (sensations and sentiments). Some bodily phenomena (such as sentiments and ‘actions’) seem to have mental origins, and so are called ‘psychosomatic.’ Conversely, many mental phenomena are regarded as having bodily causes.


Figure 8.2        A classification of appearances.


In addition to mental phenomena, we should distinguish the non-concrete appearances we may call ‘intuitive’ appearances, which are our impressions of self-knowledge (one’s self, cognitions, valuations, volitions). These differ from imaginations, in that they per se have no concrete expressions, yet they share with mental phenomena the appearance of intimacy and being in our power to some degree. They are assigned a specific kind of consciousness called intuition (whence their name here) or apperception.

Concretes (mental or material) and intuited objects have in common a status of immediate evidence, which we express by calling them ‘empirical’ or ‘experiential.’ Experiences are ‘givens’ in a way other appearances (namely abstracts) cannot match. Considered purely in and for themselves, without interpretation or inference, they are unassailable, not requiring any proof.

Abstract’ appearances may be classed as last in that they seem derived, by various means, from the preceding, experiential varieties of appearance. These means are collectively labeled ‘rational’ (implying they proceed from a faculty of reason). The term abstract refers to the primary act of reason, namely abstraction (which depends on identification of sameness or difference, i.e. on comparison and contrast between two or more appearances).

Abstract appearances share with intuitive ones the lack of concrete manifestation; we have nothing to directly show for them, they are phenomenally blank. But abstracts differ from intuitive appearances, in that getting to know the former requires a process (comparison and contrast), whereas the latter are directly known (in self-experience). Furthermore, abstract objects are ‘universals’ and essentially ‘external to us,’ whereas intuitive objects are ‘particulars’ and very much ‘part of us.’

Consciousness of abstracts is called conception, so they are also called ‘concepts.’ But the processes leading to concepts (our discourse) are far from simple and seem subject to many rules; the latter are labeled ‘logic.’ Abstracts require proof, and ultimately some sort of empirical grounding. The only exception to this rule is the case of self-evident propositions, which cannot logically be denied without committing a self-contradiction. But even in the latter cases, the concepts involved are never entirely ‘a priori,’ but require some preceding experience to have at all arisen.

Let me summarize here: perception is knowledge of concretes, i.e. material or mental phenomena; intuition is self-knowledge; perception and intuition are experiences; conception is knowledge of abstracts, derived with the aid of logic from phenomenal or intuitive data. ‘Knowledge,’ of course, at first simply means consciousness or cognition – the term is rendered more precise later with reference to cumulative Appearance. ‘Thought’ and ‘idea’ are, by the way, catchall terms that may include a mix of conception (concept formation, conceptualization), imagination (visualization, verbalization, forming hypotheses) and logical discourse (inductive and deductive), all of course implying some experience (sensory or intuitive).

As I have indicated earlier, I am not convinced that qualitative differences alone suffice to distinguish material from mental phenomena. We tend to think of the latter as less clear or vivid than the former, but this is not always the case. Dreams are sometimes extremely vivid and colorful, and the physical world is sometimes misty and unclear. For this reason, I suggest that phenomenology must suppose that introspection is to some extent involved in making this fundamental distinction. We are presumably somehow aware of the direction of input of the concrete data. Material data is ‘felt’ as coming from or via the body, whereas mental data is ‘felt’ as coming from a closer source (called the mind). Granting that such ‘feelings’ of direction of source are not themselves phenomenal marks (otherwise we would be begging the question), we must interpret them more precisely as intuitions. To be consistent we must say that we do not intuit where the data comes from, but rather intuit in what direction we turn our attention to gain access to the data.

It should be noted that we have above effectively distinguished three substances or stuffs of existence, matter, mind and spirit. We have based their differentiation partly on the fact that some experiences (those intuited) do not have phenomenal characteristics; and partly (as regards the distinction between material and mental phenomena) on the differences in phenomenal properties and locations combined with assumed intuited differences. All three of these substances may give rise to concepts. We may also presume souls, i.e. spiritual entities, other than our own through their apparent phenomenal effects and by conceptual means.

Just as the phenomenal modalities and qualities and their behaviors are considered as mere varieties of matter and mind, so the cognitions, volitions and affections of the soul need not be assigned yet another substance, but may be considered as events or properties of that same substance. Abstracts relating to material, imaginary or spiritual givens do not, likewise, require a further substance, but may be considered as mere expressions of these three substances. There is nothing epistemologically unreasonable in assuming substantial differences between the said three classes of object. It remains possible that the three substances are ultimately different versions or degrees of one and the same stuff.

The concept of substance is introduced relative to those of static attributes and dynamic movements, implying a presumed substratum for them. It allows us to presume continuity of something, an individual entity, in the midst of motion or change. The various attributes and movements are thus conceived not as mere happenstances but as all ‘belonging’ to and ‘caused’ by an abiding, unifying entity[2]. We also assume that different instances of that kind of entity remain essentially the same (i.e. of same substance) although some of their attributes and movements may differ. Note well that both ‘substance’ and ‘entity’ are abstracts. Although material and mental phenomena have concrete character, while soul has not, the latter may nonetheless equally legitimately be conceptually posited.

These beliefs, in substances and entities, are not immediate certainties but constitute conceptual hypotheses. This fact alone does not disqualify them, contrary to what some philosophers suggest. If a hypothesis gives rise to a world-view that is always, all things considered, consistent and confirmed, and no alternatives serve the same purpose as well or better, then it is inductively worthy of adoption. This seems to be the case with regard to the concepts of substance and entity. Without them, we would find ourselves unable to ‘make sense’ of (integrate, explain) all our experiences and intuitions; no one has to my knowledge managed to construct in detail equally credible and useful counter-hypotheses.


Drawn from Phenomenology (2003), Chapter 2 (sections 2 & 3).



[1]          Whereas ‘consciousness’ refers to the relation, ‘cognition’ is conceived rather as an ‘act,’ and ‘awareness’ as a state – but for our purposes we shall regard them as equivalent terms. The point is that the essence is relational, irrespective of activities or states that may often attend it.

[2]          In the case of a human Subject/Agent, causality is usually meant as ‘volition’ (implying some consciousness and responsibility) not as mere mechanical ‘causation,’ note well. Similarly, ‘possession’ of attributes may in some cases be voluntary.

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