Bertrand Russell on Appearance & Reality

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  • 0:04 Anecdote
  • 0:58 Russell
  • 1:36 Appearance & Reality
  • 2:43 Reaily
  • 3:50 Outside the Mind
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the assertions of Bertrand Russell. It will highlight his definition of philosophy, his work, 'The Problems of Philosophy' and his famous table illustration.


Today's lesson will discuss Bertrand Russell and his views on reality and appearance. Admittedly, it's a hard one. To try to counteract this, I'll start with a story.

About a year ago, I ran into a lady I once worked with. Now, I wouldn't really call her a friend, more a friendly acquaintance. Upon seeing her, I said hello, asked about her family, then inquired of work. She looked at me oddly, answered me quickly then shuffled away.

Feeling a bit blown off and confused, I continued shopping when lo and behold, I ran into the same lady. This time she greeted me warmly with a hug. She then said, 'I'm here with my twin sister, but somehow I've lost her!' Immediately, and a bit embarrassingly, everything made sense. Although it had APPEARED that I had run into someone I knew, in REALITY, my first meeting was with a stranger!


Keeping this little anecdote in mind, let's dive into Bertrand Russell. Apart from being a mathematician and a scientist, Bertrand Russell is best known for his role as a 20th century philosopher. One of his most famous works is The Problems of Philosophy, a study of appearance, reality and knowledge.

To Russell, philosophy is really just a search for certainty. Working with this premise, he asserted that most of us believe things based on false assumptions. We think we know what we know, but if we took a closer look, we might find we're in error. This leads him to wonder how we can really know anything at all.

Appearance & Reality

To work on this question, Russell made a distinction between appearance and reality. Putting things simply, he argued that appearance is what we gather from our senses.

Unfortunately, or fortunately if you're into philosophical puzzles, appearance is not always reality. Case in point, that day in the mall, it APPEARED I had run into an acquaintance. In REALITY, I had come across a stranger.

To try to explain this, Russell used the idea of a table. While sitting at a table, he'd say a wooden one, the table appears brown. However, if you stand up and look at it in a different light, it might look lighter than what you consider brown. If you turn off the lights and look at it in the moonlight, it might appear black! Based on all these different appearances, how can you really know the table is brown?

Moving away from the sense of sight, he turned to texture. When you rub your hand across the table, it feels smooth. However, what if you looked at it under a microscope? Although it feels smooth, it would appear to be rough under the microscope. So, how can you realistically be certain whether the table is smooth or rough?


According to Russell, this leads us to doubt our senses. For instance, he asserted that the real table, if in reality it is a table, is not what we assumed it to be based on our senses. In other words, its appearance is not its reality.

However since appearance, which we glean from our senses, is the only way of obtaining evidence, Russell asserts it's rather impossible to know anything certain about reality. So where does this leave us?

According to Russell, our best bet at reality is sense-data. Being a pretty confusing concept, sense-data is things that are immediately known by sensation. For instance, we see a patch of green; our mind tells us we're seeing something greenish. We have a sense of green, but because we can't really know if it is green, we're sort of left just assuming it is.

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